Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Hidden Secrets" Revealed, Part 2, First Contact

David A.R. White & Kevin Downes
in "The Moment After."


I had my strategy.  Now all I needed was a script.  That was the easy part.

I always have five-to-ten somewhat developed script ideas rattling around in my head at any given time.  One of them was perfect.  It was called "I, John," a story about the apostle John, the son of Zebedee and the author of the Gospel of John, The Book of Revelations, and a couple of shorts letters, all of which have thankfully fallen into the public domain.  I had a budget in mind so I tried to limit the locations. Most of the action would take place in a Baltimore area hospital, with a few quick flashbacks set in Biblical-era Palestine and the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.  Finding a place in Baltimore that would pass for ancient Palestine would be difficult.  Auschwitz would be easier.

Gotta love Baltimore.

I wrote the script in about two weeks.  While I went through my usual rewrite process, I decided to research the independent Christian film market.  The first couple films I saw didn't impress me.  They were all about the message, which is fine, but they made no effort to entertain or engage whatsoever.  More importantly, the characters weren't real.  The Christians were perfect, and their opponents were simply straw men.  I found them ineffective on two levels.  One, no one is going to get the message unless you keep them watching.  Two, if you have a good product, why not let it compete in the arena of ideas.

Then I saw "Six:  The Mark Unleashed."  It featured some people I've actually heard of like Eric Roberts and Stephen Baldwin, as well as some Christian guys, David A.R. White and Kevin Downes, who between the two of them, also wrote, produced and directed the film.  Not only that, it actually took its story seriously and tried to entertain as well as enlighten.  I went back to Blockbuster and got another one of their films "The Moment After."  That film also tried to entertain.  I began to think these guys might be worth talking to.

Time to hit the computer.  I soon found that David A.R. White and the Downes Brothers, Kevin and Bobby, had a production company out in California called Signal Hill.  Now I had a decision to make.  Do I send them the script?  Or do I continue with my original plan to produce and distribute "I, John" myself.   Hmmm.  Finding Bobby Downes' email address tilted the scales a bit.  What could possibly be wrong with sending them the script to see what they thought of it?

At the same time, however, I was also pitching a horror movie script called "Desecrated."  You see, while I was writing "I, John," I was in the midst of my Ghosts of Slavery period where the main conflict was always, one way or another, a byproduct of that stain on our nation's soul.  (One of the first things I did when I met my lovely future wife Deborah was to head straight down to the National Archives and check the records to make sure that her family didn't own slaves.  They didn't.  I discovered instead that her father's family came over as indentured servants and were actually sold on a auction block to a Virginia farmer as if they were slaves.  As for my own family, I do take great pride in my 2nd great-granduncle George Farber who helped burn the South.)

George Farber
(1840-1900)

Wanna to read the pitch for "Desecrated?"  Here it is:

It's summer in the worst ghetto in Baltimore.  To escape the violence-plagued streets, two young African-American boys take refuge in a vast, overgrown urban cemetery.  While avoiding the watchful eye of the stern caretaker, Douglas Adams, the boys make contact with the seemingly benevolent ghost of John Woodson, who claims to be imprisoned in the cemetery.  However, after they free Woodson, they discover he is more powerful and more terrifying than anything on the mean streets.  Together with Adams, the boys must find a way to destroy him once and for all.


"Desecrated" was a semi-finalist in the Slamdance horror screenplay competition.  It is a taut, urban thriller that juxtaposes the known terrors of the real world against the unknown horrors of the supernatural realm.  It is a dark coming of age film with teeth.*

Okay, so I have about twenty emails out for "Desecrated."  Then I send one email out for "I, John" to Bobby Downes.  In a day or two, June 26, 2005, I get an email from some guy named David which simply says, "Send me your script."  The email indicated that his last name was White.  Unfortunately, he didn't say which script.  And, I had no idea who he was.

If you've been reading my blog from the beginning, and, be honest, you haven't been, you'd know that I keep very good records concerning pitches.  The name David White didn't appear in my extensive database.  Obviously, he was a reader, but for whom?  (For some reason, I simply did not associate him with the actor in the two films I had just seen.  Bobby Downes was the only person in my personal database associated with Signal Hill.)  I went to the Hollywood Creative Directory and checked all the names at all of the places of had queried with the scripts.  Nothing.

My wife said I should just email him back and ask him what script he wanted me to send him.  I didn't want to do that.  I didn't want David White, whoever he was, to think that I was pitching fifty different scripts to fifty different people.  I wanted to give him the illusion, albeit false, that he was the only person in the world I was interested in working with and that this was the only script worth reading.  Sadly, in the end, I had no choice.  I emailed him and asked him what script he wanted to read.  He said "I, John," but he wanted to know about the other one.  I told him that it was a horror script that he wouldn't be interested in reading.  He said he wanted to read that one too.  I was a little nervous about sending him the darker "Desecrated" so I sent him "Then The Judgement" instead.  During this exchange of emails, I also belatedly realized that he was David A.R. White, the actor I had genuinely enjoyed during my research.

I heard back from David the next weekend.  He called me.  Calling is always a good sign.  He said he really liked the script a lot, particularly the sense of humor.  However, the script wasn't for him.  He was very honest and upfront as to why.  He said that they, Kevin Downes and himself, liked to produce films that they could be in, and there wasn't a role for either of them in "I, John."  Instead. he wanted to write a comedy along the lines of "The Big Chill," but with Christian themes.  And he wanted to deal with all the hot button issues like abortion and homosexuality.

Frankly, the word comedy scares me.

Although I consider myself a good comedy writer, I had sworn off comedies in the early 'nineties.  Comedy is simply too subjective.  No two people think the same thing is funny.  The final straw for me was a script, co-written with David Butler, based on a story by Tom Brandau, called "The Premier" about a communist leader visiting the United Nations who sneaks out to taste life first hand in America.  The fall of communism made the script both very topical and utterly irrelevant.  One of the companies that read it sent it back with the coverage, which was disillusioning.  Not that they didn't like it.  You've got to expect that.  If you can't take a no, screenwriting ain't for you, my friend.  What bothered me was that the reader didn't get the humor at all.  Trust me.  There were four laughs per page.  Four!  That's always my goal when writing a comedy.

So now David A.R. White, star of stage and screen, wants me to write a comedy.  For money.  My mind is clicking.  One thing was certain, I didn't want to write it alone.  I think the most productive comedy writing happens when you're bouncing ideas off another person.  I knew who I wanted to work with:  Timothy Ratajczak.  I'd known him since college.  He'd written a ton of screenplays, mostly comedies.  He's sort of the Woody Allen of Baltimore, but the good Woody Allen.  Not the bad Woody Allen that would sleep with his Korean, pseudo-stepdaughter.

I ask David if I could work with a partner.  He's says, "You can do whatever you want, as long as I only have to deal with you."  I said, "Let me call you back." I call Tim and wake him up.  He's groggy.  I say, "Do you want write a Christian Big Chill?  For money?"  "Let me think about it."  "Okay, you fifteen minutes.  I need to know tonight."  Tim said yes, but he was very skeptical about whether it would happen.

I wasn't.  I knew we would write the script.  And it would be made.

Tim and I were on our way to becoming the Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel of Christian Cinema.  We just needed figure out which one of us was going to be which.

*Whatever happened to "Desecrated," you ask.  Not getting any bites from mainstream Hollywood, I tried to put it together myself as an indy.  Working with horrormeister Mark Redfield., I got the script out to some actors I thought would give the project viability to a mid-range distributor.  The names were Ken Foree for Douglas Adams and Robert Quarry for John Woodson.  Robert Quarry rose to horror fame in the early 'seventies playing "Count Yorga, Vampire."  He was the right age and anxious to work.  Ken Foree played Peter in the original horror classic "Dawn of the Dead," and had recently appeared in Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects."  Ken had just set up a production company and was already being approached by distributors.  He really liked the role of Adams, and the theme of the script.  The dance began.  His lawyer sent us a contract, but it was filled with blanks!  They wanted us to fill in the various amounts.  We wanted them to make the initial offer.  Things went back and forth until I got too tied up in "Hidden Secrets" to continue.  Then Robert Quarry died.

Robert Quarry, RIP

Anybody wanna buy a horror script?

Hidden Secrets, Revealed, Part 3, The Writing

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

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